Surveillance cameras coming to downtown Woodstock to watch for ‘inappropriate or criminal behavior’ on Square

Cameras will cover Benton and Main streets

Woodstock Willie is held by handler Mark Szafran aloft as they make their way through a crowd after Willie predicted an early spring on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, during the annual Groundhog Day Prognostication on the Woodstock Square.

Woodstock, which has begun using license plate readers in recent years, is adding to its police surveillance tools with the purchase of two security cameras that will be placed downtown.

The cameras will be stationed at the north ends of Benton and Main streets – two of the “most socially active public streets in Woodstock,” according to city documents – and point south toward the historic Woodstock Square.

Large crowds typically gather on the Square during events such as Groundhog Day festivities and the Lighting of the Square. City officials said the Woodstock Police Department has been “closely monitoring the efforts” to grow the number of community events, particularly in the Square area, which officials said “are showing clear successes.”

But the city also said that “when large numbers of people begin to congregate for events, there tends to be an increased number of incidents of inappropriate or criminal behavior. Woodstock police officers have been doing the best that they can by addressing those incidents by holding those individuals accountable for their actions. However, it is becoming clear that video evidence, in both the investigation phase and the prosecution phase, is becoming much more of an expectation rather than the exception.”

In recent years, there have been “several incidents in the Square area where police have relied on private businesses’ security camera data for evidence,” according to city documents, but that practice has its limitations, such as cameras that don’t capture the footage because of malfunctions or footage not saving.

“I think it’s been a long time coming,” City Council member Melissa McMahon said, adding that the cameras “should not be a surprise” to people.

Woodstock documents acknowledge the right of privacy for people living on the Square but note less privacy protections on streets.

“The cameras’ lines of sight will protect the right to privacy of those who reside on the Square,” according to city documents. “There is a very limited expectation of privacy while on a public way (e.g., Benton Street and Main Street). Data from the cameras will be transmitted to equipment stored within the train depot and then transmitted to the police department for use in incidents and investigations.”

The City Council approved the camera purchase with little discussion Tuesday night, although council members did have a few questions for Woodstock police Chief John Lieb.

Council member Gordie Tebo asked whether trains coming through Woodstock station might block the view of the cameras.

Lieb acknowledged the potential for that to occur but said trains are at the station a relatively short amount of time.

Council member Bob Seegers said he supported the proposal.

Lieb said the city had been looking into getting surveillance cameras for a while after a homicide near the Square several years ago for which the police relied heavily on private business footage.

“In today’s court system, video evidence is critical,” Lieb said.

On Wednesday, he said that footage collected from the cameras will be stored for two weeks before being deleted, except in special circumstances.

City officials said the cameras would be the first ones in Woodstock. The cameras join other surveillance measures used in Woodstock, such as automatic license plate readers.

City Manager Roscoe Stelford said Woodstock currently has eight automatic license plate readers and two more are on the way.

Officials said at the State of the City event in the fall that they had plans to install cameras.

Woodstock will buy the new security cameras from Siemens. A quote included in city documents indicated a cost of about $62,600 for the cameras, with total setup costs not to exceed $85,000.

The technology is known as a “multifocal” system, according to city documents, meaning, in effect, that “multiple cameras are housed within a single device. Each of these cameras have different optical focus lenses and are set to various distances. The video management software then takes these individual images and meshes them into a single image to provide an overall view, as well as providing the ability to zoom into an area to provide additional detail.”

Brad Ball, Woodstock Area Chamber of Commerce president, expressed support for the plan.

“Public safety is paramount,” he said, adding that it wasn’t an ill-considered proposal.